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It Was a Different World Back Then

It was a different world back then

When I joined AMRO Bank from 1984 until 1992, the economists did not have computers. Well, actually, the first one was brought in the day I started. One computer for 25 economists! It took years before we all had a PC.Finance4Learning | Former Chief Economist Han de Jong is presenting in behalf of ABN AMRO


The Economisch Bureau was very hierarchical at that time. I was a junior on the international team. That team was headed up by Anne VAN 'T VEER who reported to Joop VAN KESSEL. Joop reported to Frans LIMBURG, the Chief Economist. After a few days of working there, Róisín asked me about the other people at the office. Frans Limburg was out of sight for a junior like me. I told her: ‘there is a very old man sitting in a huge room with curtains drawn and the door closed. He seems to be reading the newspaper a lot, I don’t exactly know what he does. Soon after, Frans celebrated his 50th birthday!!! I had called him a very old man...

In my early days, a coffee lady in uniform (black dress and starched white apron) brought coffee and tea to managers twice a day. Of our team, only the boss was entitled to such a service. Whenever the boss was out, we told the coffee lady he was only away from his desk. On a rota basis, we helped ourselves to the chief's favourite beverage.

The atmosphere was informal, we all used first names, but not in the case of the Chief Economist, Frans LIMBURG. Everybody called him Mr. LIMBURG. Only people from a salary scale of 12 and up were allowed to call him Frans. When I was promoted to 12 I had to get used to calling him Frans. Like Robert, Frans was a very nice person, and an excellent economist, though a little distant. The first time I got a report back from him with written comments I got a fright. ‘Meneer Limburg’ had made lots of comments. Hans SPECKER  and Jaap VAN GELDER reassured me. 'Frans only makes lots of comments if he thinks the piece is good...'

Trainee at the European Commission in Brussels

As I was interested in international affairs, I applied for a traineeship (called internship nowadays) with the European Commission in Brussels in 1980. I got a fright when I got a letter saying I was accepted. The idea of moving to Brussels for five months scared the hell out of me. But my sister Liesbeth came with me beforehand in our dad’s Peugeot and we found a room in the attic of a house at Avenue de Tervuren.

Brussels was fantastic, a great international experience. I shared an office with a Danish trainee, Peter CAROE. We are still good friends today. Above all, of course, I met Róisín, (when I was giving Dutch classes) who was doing a traineeship with the translating services and to whom I have been married now for 36 years. Mind you, Ro found it hard to reconcile my supposedly leftist leanings back then with an interest in how money works.

Finance4Learning | European Commission - European Union

Apart from the unique experience of being in such an international environment, I don’t think my time there was very productive from a professional point of view. My main task was to write a comparative study of the deposit guarantee systems in the various member states and make suggestions for harmonisation. I wrote a great report if I say so myself. That was in 1980. It is now almost 40 years later and the EU still does not have a harmonised system of deposit guarantee although it looks as though good progress is currently being made. Some might think that I am to be blamed as my recommendations may have been too demanding. But I am afraid my report has long been forgotten.

My military service (not yet)

After graduating in April 1981, I was headed for the army to do my military service. I was 23 at the time, which was young for a graduate in Holland then. Someone told me I could get a 2-year deferral of my military service if I started a PhD, a rule that applied if I graduated before the age of 24. Bert SCHREURS, a friend from college, had taken a part-time teaching job at a secondary school in Bussum. He told me the school was looking for another part-time economics teacher. I applied and got the job, teaching 13 classes per week. That provided me with an income and spare time to start the research on my PhD, allowing me to stay out of the army for at least another two years. At Christmas, Bert decided he had had enough and I was asked to take over some of his classes. That meant a higher income, but less free time for research.


Moving to Enschede

Meanwhile, Róisín moved to Münster in Germany in 1982 as she had got a scholarship from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst for her PhD. That brought us closer together, but the distance was still a good 200 km. I thought I should try to get a job closer to Münster. So after the school year, I applied for and got a job as a lecturer at a third-level college in Enschede, right on the Dutch-German border. Münster now was only 60 km away. My job was full-time and new. There was not too much time for research, but I was in love and happy and I liked the job. In fact, I learned a lot from teaching the stuff I had only recently studied in college myself. It made me understand many things much better. I recommend teaching to everybody. No doubt it contributed to my later confidence in giving presentations.


My 'Vredeling marriage' keeps me out of the army

Finance4Learning | Former Minister of Defence of the Netherlands

Róisín and I got married after my first year in Enschede in 1983. At this stage, the two-year delay for my military service was over. My PhD was not finished, far from it. The Dutch government did not pay soldiers who were drafted huge incomes. But a married man who was the breadwinner of his family had to be able to support his family, so they paid such men considerably more. In an effort to save costs for the army the Minister for Defence had decided that the army could do without such expensive soldiers. The minister’s name was Vredeling (he of the crystal ashtray incident) and as we were married and I was the breadwinner, I was excused. Or in the jargon at that time: I had a ‘Vredeling huwelijk’ ('Vredeling marriage’).

After we got married we lived in Gronau on the German side of the border. We were happy. I got fed up with my PhD and felt the pressure made me uncomfortable, especially as the one-day-a-week off, promised by the school, did not materialise. Róisín decided she was more interested in becoming a translator/interpreter than doing a PhD in medieval German. We both ditched our dissertations...


Applying for other jobs

While I enjoyed being a lecturer, I realised this was something I would not want to do for the rest of my working life. In addition, my salary was cut by 3% for austerity reasons. So, from 1983 to 1984, I started looking for other options. I applied for jobs in DNB, several ministries, and also at Wageningen University. I guess I was not very good at applying. I was called for interviews in most cases but kept missing the boat. At one stage I got a job offer from the Finance ministry. The last phase in that process was meeting my future colleagues. I recognised two of them as people I had met in Brussels at some meetings. Back in Brussels, these guys had not impressed me at all. For that reason, I decided I did not want the job for fear of becoming like them. I turned the job down after the offer was made.

As I gained experience at doing interviews I got better at it. At some stage, ABN and AMRO advertised for an economist to join their respective economics teams. I applied with both banks. At the same time, I applied for a similar role in the Finance ministry. ABN did not call me for an interview. AMRO did, as did the ministry. I remember being interviewed by Robert VAN DEN BOSCH at the AMRO headquarters at Herengracht 595. The interview went well and I was confident I was going to be hired. The same happened at the ministry. Much to my shock, I didn’t get either job. But a few days after having been rejected, AMRO contacted me that another vacancy had arisen. This time not in the Netherlands team at their economics department, which was led by Robert van den Bosch, but in the international section of the economics team. As I was much more interested in international affairs, I was delighted. But, of course, I needed to be interviewed again. This time I met Anne VAN'T VEER  (a man, Anne is a Friesian boy's name) and a guy from HR. Anne was mostly lying back in his chair, seemingly completely bored and uninterested. I thought I wasn’t going to offer the job, but I was!! I later learned that Anne had back problems and could not sit straight. So, I signed the contract. A few days later, the ministry rang that another vacancy had arisen there as well, and they were offering me the job. To be honest, I might have preferred to join the Finance ministry at the time, but I felt I could hardly renege on my signature on the AMRO contract. This was probably one of the most decisive moments of my career. With hindsight, I am really glad I decided to join AMRO.


Robert van den Bosch, crucial to my career

Of all people I have worked with and for, Robert van den Bosch probably had the most influence on my career. Robert is a very kind person and an excellent economist. Nobody has given me better feedback on my work than he. In essence, Robert hired me three times. Can there be a greater sign of confidence? My first interview with Robert in 1984 went well, but he preferred Paul HAAL and Frank NIVARD over me. Fair enough. The jobs were on the team covering the Netherlands and my interest was clearly more international. But when a vacancy arose on the international team Robert put my name forward and I got the job. Years later he approached me to come back to the Economisch Bureau to head up the Developed Economies team. And when he retired he supported my candidacy to become the bank’s Chief Economist.

‘Meneer’ Witteveen’s graphs, an inspiration

Johannes WITTEVEEN was an economic advisor to the board having served as finance minister and also as the head of the International Monetary Fund in Washington. He was a very respected economist. Witteveen wrote long economic commentaries and called in the assistance of our team when needed.

Finance4Learning | Former Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands Johan Witteveen

In those days, making graphs was not easy. We had some sort of machine that could plot graphs, though we did not have PCs. Witteveen had asked for a set of graphs. The senior economists in our team looked at them. As they probably felt Witteveen was not going to be too impressed, I was sent to bring him the graphs. He asked me to stay while he inspected them. Then he got very excited. He had spotted a pattern that supported whatever point he was trying to make. He called me over to his side of the desk and showed me. Now I saw it too and was fascinated. I wanted to learn how to do that.


My first successful call

My first duties at AMRO consisted of following the UK economy and the countries of the Caribbean in 1984. Obviously, we did not follow the Caribbean economies in detail. All I had to do was the ‘credit rating’, a twice-yearly exercise determining an internal sovereign rating. I enjoyed learning about such far-away economies, looking at their growth rates, inflation, public finances, development of their external position (current account, debt, and reserves), their exchange rate policy, etc. But most of my time was spent in the UK.

We had a monthly publication containing commentary and analysis of a range of industrialised economies, two pages per country in a standard format, the Amro Economisch Bulletin (AEB). People could take out a paid subscription. If I remember correctly, an annual subscription cost some 350 guilders. I think we had around 300 subscribers, so that brought it a decent sum of over 100,000 guilders. My gross annual salary as a junior was 42,500 guilders (just shy of 20,000 euros at the rate at which guilders were converted into euros in 1999); so the AEB essentially paid for two economists. Not bad.

The AEB started with two one-pagers: the ‘renteprognose’ (interest-rate forecast) and the ‘valutaprognose’ (exchange-rate forecast). Before this was written (by one of the seniors, usually Jaap VAN GELDER  or Hans SPECKER), we would sit around and everybody would talk about the economy they were covering. We also had to decide whether we thought interest rates and the exchange rate of our country would remain stable in the months ahead (indicated by a 0), or would rise or fall (0/+, 0/-, or if we had a high conviction + or -). Towards the end of 1984 oil prices came under some pressure. I thought that downward pressure would last and would push sterling down. So I proposed a 0/- as our forecast for sterling. That was considered a bold forecast and I was challenged by Hans Specker. But Jaap van Gelder defended me saying it was my call and the argument made sense.

At Christmas, Róisín and I had gone to visit her family in Dublin. I would typically buy the Financial Times when I had the chance and I remember looking up the exchange rates during that holiday. One day, sterling had fallen, the start of a protracted decline. I was overjoyed as my first bold call had come through. Whether it was the oil price or the miners’ strike (that lasted almost a year in 1984/85) I don’t know. Perhaps I had been ‘right for the wrong reasons’, but who cares. It is funny that economists forecasting something negative can be very happy if it turns out they are right. I still joke sometimes that an economist forecasting the end of the world will be overjoyed on the day that happens. He will probably be the only one.